Speedway: Nicholls on track to shine in showpiece

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The Independent Online

Imagine a top-class footballer being signed simultaneously to three clubs in separate European leagues, and appearing for each of them in the same week ahead of an international match for his country at the weekend. Scott Nicholls is British speedway's equivalent.

He is riding for three league teams this season: Coventry Bees in England, Tarnow in Poland, and Smederna in Sweden. And the 28-year-old from Ipswich, poster-boy handsome but happy to stay out of the limelight, will be the brightest home hope at today's British Grand Prix at the Millennium Stadium.

The favourites are all foreign, headed by the Australian, Jason Crump, but with Nicholls in sizzling form, he says: "It's on home turf, it's the highlight of the season. The noise and the atmosphere are something else. This is the one event that people who don't even like speedway really enjoy. There's no reason I can't make an impact and win my first Grand Prix. There's no better time and place to do it."

He describes his build-up as "manic", which is something of an understatement. Never mind that the showpiece in Cardiff draws the largest single crowd (40,000-plus) to the biggest arena on the international circuit. For six months of the year, the leading riders compete virtually non-stop, with no let-up even ahead of the most prestigious events.

"Last Sunday I was riding in Poland," Nicholls said yesterday. "Monday I flew back and rode in Coventry. Tuesday I was in Sweden, at a meeting that was rained off. Wednesday was Essex, Thursday was Ipswich. Today is practice, for Saturday's Grand Prix. And Sunday I'll be in Swindon."

In a typical week, Nicholls will ride for Coventry twice, and once each for Tarnow and Smederna. As a member of the speedway élite, he also contests the 10-race Grand Prix series around Europe between April and September. In the season's span of 180 days, he rides at 100 meetings or more.

While the atmosphere today will be exceptional, speedway in Poland, Nicholls says, routinely induces the same kind of mass hysteria as cricket does in India. "The Polish are loopy," he says. "Very nice people.

"Very passionate about their sport. They live it and breath it. They drink their beer, dance, sing, blow air horns, throw smoke bombs. It's all a bit crazy. The one thing I would ask is whether they really have to throw till rolls at you. I know they're like streamers but they do hurt. Still, there's never any trouble."

The schedule is gruelling, and exhausting. "Travelling takes up so much of the time. I'm always thinking it'd be good to take my mountain bike out for a ride, or go to the gym, but in the season I'm just too worn out."

Not even injuries deter him from taking to the track. Two years ago, he had a bad accident when appearing for Ipswich but continued to ride that evening not realising the extent of the damage to his leg. He then went to Sweden for a meeting but withdrew because of knee ligament damage also sustained in the accident, and when he subsequently saw a surgeon who advised and performed a skin graft, he discovered he'd been walking around - and flying - with a blood clot in his leg. That all happened in the April and he was back in competition within weeks.

"I was going into the first turn, me and [rival rider] Leigh Adams, and my leg got caught up in his back wheel," he says of the crash. "It was under his mud guard and the tyre was spinning round having a feast on my leg. I taped it up and went back for the restart. It was pretty painful. It was only later I realised the flesh was cut.

"I went off to the Stockholm Grand Prix but withdrew. I came home, wasn't feeling too well, and saw the surgeon straight away. He said I'd gashed it down to the muscle, nicked the muscle. He performed a skin graft, taking a patch about five inches by five inches from my right thigh and putting it on my injured left leg. That's where he found this big blood clot. And I'd flown twice with it in my leg, sitting there ready to go."

He was soon back in action, "not just because if you don't ride then you don't get paid but because convalescence is boring. I'm not one for sitting around. I'm doing something I love for a living".

Nicholls is the most successful current British rider. Last year he ended the season as the Bees' Elite League-winning captain. His points average is up there with the best, and at team level he regularly beats the best. But he admits that at Grand Prix level it took a while to settle. "It does require a different mentality. I'd be able to beat people in the league but got nervous and couldn't do it at a Grand Prix. That's changed. I'm used to it. I've turned that corner. Anyone in Cardiff can win it, me included."

Even though speedway is growing as a TV spectator sport, with viewing figures on Sky apparently outdoing domestic rugby (of both codes) and even some football matches, Nicholls likes the fact he can still walk about largely unrecognised. "I really wouldn't want all the rubbish that comes with being a famous footballer," he says.

Workload, not hero worship, is more his style.

Three kings of Cardiff

* JASON CRUMP The 30-year-old Bristol-born Australian won the 2004 World Championship and currently sits at the top of this season's Grand Prix table after two wins in three GPs. Crump, the bookies' favourite today at 5-4, said: "Racing in a world-class stadium like this is awesome."

* TONY RICKARDSSON The 35-year-old Swede, and reigning world champion, is the most successful rider of his generation, having won six world titles in the past 12 years. Has also won three league titles in Sweden and three in Poland. Rides with Scott Nicholls for Tarnow in Poland. Joint-second favourite today at 11-2.

* NICKI PEDERSEN The 29-year-old Dane, the 2003 world champion, set a record that year by winning seven GPs, which earned him Denmark's Sportsman of the Year award. He lives in Sheffield and he has overcome serious injuries to his knee, neck, back, hand and ankle. Joint-second favourite today at 11-2.